When you think of the Victorian era, certain motifs come to mind. Thick fog. Tight corsets. Prudishness and its attendant euphemisms (“limb,” “invert,” “gross indecency”). Scientific adventure. Murdered prostitutes. Rapier wits. Tea parties. Plucky orphan waifs. Hansom cabs struggling through a meter of accumulated horse poop. The one thing you probably don’t think of is the cooking.
Before I continue, allow me to place bouquets on the graves of cultural sensitivity and historical context. I know that my own tastes do not apply to other eras. People throughout history have eaten things that, to my sensibilities, seem disgusting. However, by the same token, my own diet would disgust many of them. Which foodstuffs are palatable and which are garbage is completely a matter of opinion and upbringing.
With that disclaimer out of the way, allow me to state one thing unequivocally: the Victorians ate some crazy shit.
Today’s tome, the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook, fell into my hot little hands at 221B Con, a Sherlock Holmes convention in Atlanta. I won it during a John Watson trivia contest. And by “won,” I mean “lucked into it in the cheapest way possible.”
PANELIST: “During one scene in the film Shanghai Nights, the two main characters pretend to be Holmes and Watson. Which of them is Watson?”
MY FRIEND: “Owen Wilson?”
ME: “Jackie Chan?”
And that’s how I wound up with the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook. Now, as a pseudo-vegan, I can’t eat much of what’s in here. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know where the hell to find some of the ingredients. That’s because the answer to the question “What did the Victorians eat?” is “Mostly guts.”
Here, as best as I can represent them, are the key elements of Victorian cooking.
The Victorians had a thing for organs–and I’m not just talking about the black market cadaver trade. Half of the recipes in this book include guts: chiefly kidneys, though any organ seemed to be fair game.
Gentle reader, enlighten this poor herbivore. Where the hell do you buy kidneys? Can you stroll up to the deli counter at Kroger and ask them to get some from the back? What if they don’t have the right kind? “Dammit, these are chicken kidneys! I specifically asked for year-old uncastrated yak!”
#3. Weirdly Specific Cuts of Meat
There are also recipes that are weirdly nonspecific, such as this one.
#4. Animals You Never Knew You Could Eat
Here in the Great Lakes states, we have a problem with Asian carp lousing up the local ecosystem. One of the possible solutions that was floated a few years back involved selling the carp to the Chinese, because they’re the only people in the world who like eating carp. Well…them and the Victorians, apparently.
#5. Tongue with Cherries